Phil Wilkinson (left)

Momentum appears to be building for radically better energy performance in our built environment and the change could come sooner than expected if Fates are on side.

The precursor is general industry collaboration, singing from the same song book in other words, and a nod and wink from Canberra, given that no one knows what’s cooking inside that hothouse Parliament we’ve all just elected.

So far the signs are good. At least as far as Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heating’s Phil Wilkinson and pitt+sherry’s Phil Harrington are concerned.

At a recent meeting in Canberra with Greg Hunt, now minister for Industry Innovation and Science, Phil Wilkinson and colleagues from AIRAH came away feeling positive.

“We’re not disheartened,” he said in a recent chat.

Here was a minister who clearly has a good understanding of buildings and doesn’t have to have the McKinsey & Co cost curve explained all over again. This is no surprise, of course, given that as environment minister Hunt was at the receiving end of a mass of lobbying from the property industry over the contribution buildings could make to the (misplaced/misspent) Emissions Reduction Fund’s goals. So maybe all that advocacy will bear some fruit after all.

It will also help that Hunt is very good friends with Josh Frydenberg who took over the environment portfolio, as the two will need to work together to get progress on emissions reductions.

Wilkinson, AIRAH executive manager government relations and technical services, says the success of much good work under way in the industry will depend on this understanding from Hunt. Two items in particular are in focus – moves for greater disclosure of energy usage and an uplift in minimum energy performance in the Building Code of Australia.

The mediums are AIRAH’s PRIME initiative, essentially 12 industry groups organisations working on a low carbon industry transition, and the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council’s agenda, which is focused on improvements to the National Construction Code.

Wilkinson says that on stronger mandatory minimum energy standards there’s nothing concrete from the property owners’ perspective as yet but from his sector there is a strong focus on mandating best practice from equipment in commercial refrigeration.

A key tool is AIRAH’s “cool tool”, the “first standard rating tool” in Australia to measure and benchmark the performance of the airconditioning and heating equipment, he says. It will come in handy for mandatory disclosure of NABERS Energy ratings for offices of 1000 square metres or greater, which kicks in on 1 July next year.

Hunt’s department has published an updated set of numbers for higher standards in the NCC

Phil Harrington
Phil Harrington

Phil Harrington, principal consultant and business unit manager, carbon & energy for pitt+sherry, is another industry expert feeling fairly positive right now. Hunt’s department recently published Harrington’s 2016 update on work initially carried out in 2012 to understand the impact that could be expected from various levels of higher minimum energy standards that could be absorbed in the NCC – for both commercial and residential sectors.

Industry has almost universal view that standards are too low for commercial sector

“My impression is there is a widespread view – almost universal in the industry – that our standards are too low.

“And it’s hardly surprising because that message has been out there for years.

“Every office building is outperforming the minimum standards,” he says.

Harrington, for his company, says the work, Pathways to 2020 for increased stringency in new building energy efficiency standards:benefit cost analysis: commercial buildings: 2016 update, is a timely publication, given the momentum towards an improved NCC.

“The question is how quickly does industry innovate and adapt to new performance requirements in a way that leads to compliance costs falling? It’s an issue that was very controversial and very important in 2009 when the last code requirements were being set,” he said.

So what’s Harrington findings with the new set of numbers?

Big energy cuts possible

Most interesting is the difference in scenarios regarding the so-called “learning rate”, that is, the time it will take for the industry to comply with raised code standards at no additional cost.

If the learning rate is set at 100 per cent after seven years (so after seven years, there’s no additional cost impost), energy reductions of between 70-80 per cent on the BCA2010 are achievable for a benefit-cost ratio of 1, depending on whether a no, low or high carbon price is factored in.

Lower learning rates have been accounted for too, though show less impressive results. However, Harrington says many in the industry believe that with new technology and design the time taken to adapt could be much less than the best-case scenario modelled.

If industry got together now and focused on skills, training and CPD in advance of standards being raised in 2019, they’d have a three-year head-start.

Resi standards could be brought up greatly too

Much the same can be said of the residential space, where Harrington has also created a 2016 update on the pathway to 2020 report for increasing efficiency.

This update finds that energy savings of between 8-49 per cent could be achieved, depending again on learning rates, though carbon price scenarios didn’t have much of an effect.

“… When the learning rate is 100 per cent after seven years, at least 8.5 star and 9.0 star thermal shells are cost effective for class 1 and 2 dwellings respectively in all jurisdictions,” the report finds.

High rise residential buildings can go all the way to zero carbon, here’s how

Around the same, Harrington released a draft report commissioned by the City of Sydney on whether high-rise residential buildings could achieve zero net energy. The answer was yes. A surprising yes, because it’s generally assumed that high rise resi are big energy guzzlers no matter how close to transport they are.

Harrington’s work, however, showed that new buildings could achieve net zero carbon and he showed this using the 66-storey Eq. tower under construction in Melbourne and the 30-storey Australia Towers II at Olympic Park in Sydney, which was completed a couple of years ago.

This hugely valuable work showed that by following Passive House principles of greater air tightness and uber efficient equipment inside, the buildings could shave a massive 70 per cent of their energy consumption.

Another 30 per cent could be cut by installing building-integrated PV on three facades. That’s not so common in Australia, Harrington said, but it’s increasingly used in Europe and the US.

Really good reviews on draft report commissioned by City of Sydney

The work, commissioned by the City of Sydney, as part of its work as a member of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, is getting “really good reviews”, Harrington says.

“We’ve given it to the [Better Buildings Partnership] and The Property Council and we said, ‘Tear this to pieces. See what you can do.’”

Instead the feedback has been “incredibly positive, great stuff”.

The additional costs for net zero is eight per cent, but can be much lower

Even better news is that the additional costs to achieve these outcomes were modelled at eight per cent for net zero, but Harrington says that’s highly conservative; the cost could be well below. In London it’s just 1.5 per cent for similar results, he says.

Harrington says the work did not take account of embedded carbon in the building fabric but he said “getting to zero operational is important”.

Harrington, you might recall, led the industry-renting work a couple of years back that revealed the housing sector was seriously underachieving even the nominal weak environmental standards set for it.

At the time we heard architects were given lists of building certifiers offering to give a discount if they didn’t have to visit the site. And that local councils were ignoring their responsibility to enforce minimum environmental standards because they didn’t really understand the need or meaning of these.

When we checked our Google Analytics this week it was still one of the highest rating stories ever.

An unintended consequence of better air tightness is mould

AIRAH’s Phil Wilkinson, by the way, is also working on another one of those annoying issues known as perverse outcomes or unintended consequences of innovation pretty much anywhere.

In this case it’s mould. As the industry manages how to save energy by tightening up Australia’s notoriously “leaky” buildings, this scourge has emerged and worked its way down from more tropical climes to the temperates.

Last week Wilkinson attended Australia’s first conference on the topic in Sydney, the Humidity Issues in Australian Climates Workshop 2016, and says the moisture control issue is about to hit the Building Code of Australia.

“Condensation is on the agenda at the moment,” he said.

AIRAH, which organised the conference, is putting together a building physics group to look at how this potentially highly unhealthy impact can be managed through ventilation and airconditioning.

There’s also a publication DA20 that deals with the thermal comfort in relation to moisture.

Some occupants of highly green buildings don’t operate the building correctly – why?

In addition to mould there’s another perverse outcome that’s emerged from super sustainable buildings, Wilkinson said.

This is the failure of more than a few occupants to manage sustainable buildings the way they were designed to be used.

The Fifth Estate has picked up growing murmurs of discontent among facilities managers and design experts that indicate highly rated green buildings are being run at far from their optimum capacity.

Wilkinson says in the UK occupancy specialist Adrian Leaman of the Usable Buildings Trust has found dreadful operational outcomes in some iconic buildings and he blames psychological reasons, at least in some cases.

Blame a lack of engagement, or lack of understanding by the occupants, Wilkinson says. But in some cases it’s an outright refusal to engage, especially when the building controls are too complex and risk making the occupants “feel stupid”.

Better to turn off and not use the knobs and buttons rather than admit you don’t know how to work them properly.

It’s reminiscent of the too-clever-by-half controls that some people have put in their homes, at huge cost, only to ignore them and opt for the simple life.

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  1. Just a quick qualifier – the two ‘2016 Updates’ (commercial and ressie) to our 2012 Pathway to 2020 study were done on a very limited budget, so we did not resimulate the buildings to find optimal technical solutions today. Similarly, the very detailed costings that were done by Davis Langdon in 2011 have not been updated. Given that we’ve got better materials now, at lower cost, the 2016 Updates are likely to underestimate the actual cost effective potential for better building standards…particularly as they won’t cut in until at least 2019.